Title IX Wine
Generations ago, you might be hard-pressed to walk across a flourishing vineyard and find a woman winemaker at its helm. But today in Oregon Wine Country, home to 250 of the state’s 393 wineries, female vintners are establishing themselves more and more as leaders and visionaries of the industry.

So what does it take to become a successful woman winemaker? What obstacles do females face as they enter and establish themselves among their well-known male counterparts? Three vintners share their experiences, triumphs and tribulations as pioneering woman winemakers of the Willamette Valley.

Although it’s often said that wine is the heart of the Willamette Valley, locals agree the real heart is found in the people. Let’s meet some jeans-clad lady vintners who makes wine for craft instead of pomp and who share a special connection with Oregon Wine Country.

Windy Path to the Winery

Linda Lindsay, Stone Wolf Vineyards

Linda Lindsay claims her path to Stone Wolf Vineyard was pure accident. As a young girl, Lindsay’s father had worked in the wine industry as a sales executive, so she’d grown up drinking the “good stuff” around her family’s dinner table. Years later, working as a successful real estate agent and restaurateur, Linda and her husband helped a friend manage and harvest his McMinnville vineyard. Linda eventually inherited the property, and, in 1996, the legend of Stone Wolf was born.

Recent media coverage has acknowledged Stone Wolf as a major player in the national wine scene after only a relatively short number of years in production. Lindsay is humble in response to the attention.

 “We got really, really lucky,” she said. “It gets tougher every year. There are more and more competitors coming in and it’s become an international battle. We’re going up against the big boys for shelf space.”

Sandee Piluso, Piluso Vineyard and Winery
Sandee Piluso’s introduction to wine was anything but accidental, growing up in a Central Valley, Calif., cattle-raising family. Always one to have her hands in the dirt, Piluso grew up in wine country – passing vineyards every day on her way to school. The close proximity soon gave way to a personal passion for viticulture.  

After moving to Oregon in the 1970s, Piluso discovered Pinot noir and met a city boy, whom she would later convince to embrace a rural lifestyle among fledgling grape vines. The two found acreage in Aumsville, a small town in Marion County, where they worked hard to produce some of the best dessert wines and other varietals in the region.

“We’ll always be small,” said Piluso, “because we really like having a hands on, vine-to-glass experience.”

Patty Green, Patricia Green Cellars
Patty Green may have dropped into the winemaking industry from a former vocation of reforestation, but she has certainly paid her dues. After years of planting trees across Alaska and Washington, she convinced a friend at Hillcrest Vineyards to let her pick grapes. By 1987, she was working as an assistant winemaker and, only four years later, Green was consulting and working crush with a variety of vineyards. In 1993, she began as winemaker and sole employee of Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

“At Torii Mor, I did everything. Working the vineyard, making the wine, doing the books, everything,” said Green, “And I always appreciated that because it was a great education to learn how every aspect is related. I was lucky enough to really understand all the different components that go into this business, down to the forklift repairs, from my own experience, and that’s influenced my business tremendously.”

After Torii Mor, Green went on to open her own winery, Patricia Green Cellars, in Newberg, which she continues to own and operate.

A Woman’s Touch

All three woman vintners have found success in their own niche markets, as well as across the West Coast’s crowded wine industry. But it hasn’t always been easy. Each has experienced significant challenges—from distribution to marketing to poor harvests—and with each challenge, a lesson learned. What has their experience been working among men? Do they believe that women experience any advantages or disadvantages in the industry because of their gender?

“I do think women approach winemaking differently then men,” said Lindsay, with little hesitation. “We’re nurturers, which plays out with the wines and with the grapes. Our senses are heightened, smelling and tasting, which is important.”

Piluso agreed, “I’ve been working in a man’s world for a long time, standing right beside them and doing a better job. I’ve never felt like I had to prove myself to anyone but myself. It’s a woman’s world, you can try anything. We have an edge, because we have a better sense of taste and smell—and a better sense of intuition. Those are pluses to making a better wine.”

And it’s not just the women who believe they may have a sensory advantage. Ever wonder who was behind those clever Patricia Green Cellars t-shirts that read “Women Taste Better”?

“My business partner‘s theory is that women can taste better,” said Green. “We were sitting around at harvest one night and we were tasting a bunch of wine. He was talking about women’s olfactory senses. While we’re talking about all of this, I raised my glass and said “Women taste better” and he said, “It’s a T-Shirt!”

Good Luck and Good Advice

These humble vintners often credit their successes to good luck and timing, but it is also keen business sense and raw passion for the soil and for the grapes that has enabled each to sustain a thriving vineyard.

For Lindsay, marketing and distribution have been key components of Stone Wolf’s accomplishments. “We got very lucky with our label design. Stone Wolf jumps right off the shelf. A label can really make or break you,” she said. “New [winemakers] coming in may not have a clear understanding or a business plan in place. How are they going to sell it? They just know they want to make a $40 dollar bottle of Pinot.”

Keeping perspective and patience are two virtues Piluso advocates for up-and-coming vintners. “Think about how you see yourself realistically. You may have to step back a step or two before going forward again.”

Patty Green’s encouragement is, perhaps, more guttural. “Don’t be afraid of your intuition and don’t second guess yourself. A lot of times when you’re in the thick of it, your first reaction is the right one. Don’t wait. If you feel like you need to do something, don’t wait. Not with wine. Trust yourself. Frequently, I work off my gut feelings.”

The Welcoming Willamette Valley

Each of these women may extol varied business strategies; they may harvest grapes out of separate plots of land and prefer different variations of Pinot. However, they can all agree that their roads to the top would not have been possible if not for the community and camaraderie of the Willamette Valley wine industry. And as new graduates of viticulture programs and aspiring city folk work hard to get their feet in the doors of the Willamette Valley winemaking culture, established vintners welcome them into their tasting rooms with open arms and freshly uncorked bottles.

“It’s unusual the way we all play nice here,” said Lindsay, laughing. “We’re kind of an incubator for new [vintners] coming in. Four [male] winemakers are in my cellar right now, trying to learn and start their own. We provide space and mentorship here.”

Piluso articulates the simplicity of the Valley and its welcoming culture well, “The thing is, you can take the same grapes and do the same thing to them and they’ll turn out different,” she said. “No one is trying to copy each other; it’s all about the artful expression of the fruit.”

Even with international pressure mounting, Green agrees the Willamette Valley’s reputation for community is maintained by its vintners. “There are big guns coming in,” she said, “and that’s always going to change the feeling. But there’s a cool bunch of people here. We taste each other’s cellars…we’re all in the same soil.”

For those who have a love of good wine but prefer to sit back and sip the fruits of another’s labors, the Willamette Valley women winemakers always have their door open. Most Willamette Valley wineries include tasting rooms open to the public. Lindsay’s Stone Wolf tasting room is located conveniently in downtown McMinnville, operated by those who have had a hand in the winemaking process so they can speak knowledgably about the wines visitors are tasting. “Customers comment about what a great experience [it is] to be able to chat with a member of our winemaking team, and feel passion and excitement,” said Lindsay. “Quite often…I take care of guests in the tasting room…We work as a team here and I believe it shows.”

Piluso Vineyards has a quaint farmhouse tasting room and a Vintner’s Garden, a favorite of visitors during the summer season. Wine is not made onsite, although guests are encouraged to learn about Piluso’s unique viticulture practices and winemaking philosophy. “I am here at our tasting room most all of the time to answer questions about wine and what we do here that makes our wines special,” said Piluso, “We farm sustainably and are proud of the wines we have produced.”

Although Patricia Green Cellars does not have a designated tasting room, visiting wine lovers are encouraged to stop in or make an appointment for a few sips. With a laid back atmosphere and unpretentious introduction, Green, herself, will introduce visitors to fresh wines from the most recent harvest

And with more and more woman winemakers embracing the trade and gaining ground among neighboring male-led vineyards, it is safe to say that visitors to the Willamette Valley have the pleasure of meeting and enjoying the works of winemakers of many varietals and of both genders.

Like these pioneers − real without trying − there’s something to be said about a place that’s full of ingenuity and authenticity.  In this valley of farms and fields, vineyards and vistas, townships and trails, Green, Piluso and Lindsay found the life they want to live right here.  And with open arms, they invite you to experience a delicious taste of their world, if only for a weekend.

All Photos © 2007 Andrea Johnson Photography